Skip to main content

Henry Ernest Sigerist papers

Call Number: MS 788

Scope and Contents

The Henry E. Sigerist Papers consist of eighteen feet of correspondence, notes, typescripts, photographs, memorabilia, and miscellaneous papers. They are organized in three series: CORRESPONDENCE, PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES, and BIOGRAPHICAL DATA AND MEMORABILIA. The range of dates is from 1897 to 1978, but letters spanning from 1913 to 1925 and from 1947 to 1957 comprise more than half the papers.

Series I, CORRESPONDENCE, has seven sections: General, 1913-1925; General, 1931-1946; General, 1947-1957; Topical, 1947-1957; Family; Nora Sigerist Beeson; and Collected Letters. The general correspondence consists mainly of letters that Sigerist exchanged with historians of medicine and teachers and practitioners in public health. Most of the topical correspondence has to do with routine personal and professional business, but there are also collections of letters commemorating Sigerist's departure from Baltimore, his sixtieth birthday, and his years in Leipzig. The family correspondence consists mainly of letters that Henry Sigerist exchanged with his relations. The correspondence of Nora Sigerist Beeson is primarily concerned with the disposition of her father's papers. The collected letters are calling cards addressed to Max Brödel and letters from German historians possibly addressed to scholars or librarians at Johns Hopkins University. Series II contains additional correspondence related to lecture tours, university affiliations, and membership in learned societies.

General Correspondence, 1913-1925, consists mainly of letters that Sigerist received after he joined the faculty of the University of Zurich in 1921. The principal exceptions are letters from Oskar Baudisch, Ernst Howald, and Hans Rudolf Schinz, who knew him while he was a medical student at Zurich, and Karl Sudhoff, whose student he became in 1917. His principal correspondents after 1921 were publishers, librarians, and professors of the history of medicine in European and British universities. The earliest copy of a letter by Sigerist is dated 1923, and incoming letters predominate even on the eve of his departure for Leipzig.

In the absence of most of Sigerist's letters from Zurich, the dominant figure in this early correspondence is Karl Sudhoff, who presided over the Institute for the History of Medicine at Leipzig until 1925. Sudhoff's letters are as numerous as anyone's in this period. They contain news, advice, and expressions of affection, the last reaching their extremity in a thank-you note beginning (in German), "Dear Easter Bunny" (1922 Mar 11). Sudhoff also figures largely in the letters of other correspondents, most often as an object of fear or resentment. For Sigerist's views of his teacher and predecessor, one must turn mainly to his occasional reminiscences in the General Correspondence, 1947-1957.

The early correspondence has relatively little personal news, but a few letters contain special information about Sigerist's career. Charles Singer advised him about an unspecified major decision in 1922. Karl Sudhoff provided a running commentary on his choice of a successor, beginning with a failure even to consider Sigerist and ending with an apparent preference for Paul Diepgen, who did not want the position. There is also a letter from Sigerist (to George Senn, 1923 Nov 29) reporting Arnold Klebs's efforts to convince Sudhoff, among others, that he was both Jewish and tubercular. Sigerist avowed that "If I were a Jew it would be all the same to me and I would stand by it" but pointed out that the lie would close doors in Germany. This episode was related to a disagreement over the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine.

Another important element in the early correspondence is international scholarly cooperation after the First World War. This problem arose for Sigerist in connection with several activities: planning International Congresses for the History of Medicine, editing Monumenta Medica, preparing the festschrift for Karl Sudhoff, and founding the Swiss Society for the History of Medicine. Sigerist's principal correspondent on these matters was Charles Singer, who collaborated with him on some and shared his opinions on others, but they appear also in the letters of other historians. In some cases, there may be older grievances as well: sensitivity to neglect of Italian scholarship in the letters of Arturo Castiglioni, francophobia in the letters of Karl Sudhoff.

The last major theme of the early correspondence is the many minor matters of scholarship and professional business that commanded day-to-day attention. There are questions and answers about bibliographic problems, remarks about the progress of research and writing, and proposals for editing and publishing texts. Larger subjects, however, are almost entirely absent except in relation to the international theme. There is, for example, no discussion or even acknowledgment of such issues as the nature of the history of medicine and its proper role in the education of physicians or laymen.

There are very few letters from Sigerist's years in Germany and the United States, apparently because he left behind his professional correspondence when he departed from the respective universities. The only letters written while he was still in Leipzig are copies of his protests about financial support for the Institute, which are filed under Universities in Series II. The correspondence from his years in the United States, beginning with his arrival for a lecture tour in September 1931, consists of these unrepresentative components:

  1. letters, 1931, about arrangements for the tour. These are in Series II, Lecture Tours.
  2. general correspondence, 1931-1932, which was originally filed with the letters about the tour.
  3. letters, 1939, about arrangements for his South African tour. These too are in Series II, Lecture Tours.
  4. general correspondence, 1939, which was originally filed with the letters about the South African tour.
  5. summer "newsletters," 1933-1945, from staff members of the Institute for the History of Medicine, including summaries of letters to Sigerist that are not in Yale's Sigerist Papers.
  6. miscellaneous letters, 1931-1946, consisting mainly of correspondence with former students and routine business and social communications.

Nonetheless, the American correspondence has considerable biographical value, and the exchanges with former students are an important preliminary to the General Correspondence, 1947-1957.

The main topics of Sigerist's general correspondence during his American lecture tour are conditions in Germany and the United States and his decision to accept a position in Johns Hopkins University. His most detailed observations of American life occur in letters to Bruno Hauff, Ludwig Kast, Karl Sudhoff, and Owsei Temkin. He was more circumspect about his decision to give up his post in Germany, but there are partial explanations in letters to Joseph S. Ames, Harvey Cushing, F. Sauerbruch, Sudhoff, Temkin, and Robert Ulich. The letters from Sigerist's students and colleagues at the University of Leipzig contain local news and expressions of foreboding about political trends in Germany.

A few letters from the 1940s show Sigerist's political concerns and the reaction they provoked in the university and the federal government. In a letter to John Hopkins's president, Isaiah Bowman, he promised to say nothing in connection with his forthcoming trip to India that might-embarrass "the University or anyone else" (1944 Sep 26). A few months earlier he had held Bowman "largely responsible for the outrageous Polish-Soviet borderline" drawn after World War I and remarked that the Russians offered the only hope for the postwar world (to Arturo Castiglioni, 1944 Mar 16; marked in someone else's handwriting, "You better keep this carbon in your files at home"). There are also letters showing Sigerist's support for organizations that promoted closer relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. All this material might be compared with the transcript of Sigerist's interrogation as an alleged Communist in 1944 (Series II, Board of Economic Warfare).

The correspondence and related papers from the last decade of Sigerist's life are in Series I, General and Topical Correspondence, 1947-1957, and in Series II, Organizations. The general correspondence in Series I contains most of the material of prime value to historians; the letters in the other two sections deal mainly with routine professional and personal business. The incoming letters in General Correspondence, 1947-1957, appear to be virtually complete, and there are copies of many if not most outgoing letters except those written in 1951, when Sigerist had no secretary.

Between 1947 and 1957 Sigerist corresponded with people in every major part of the world except black Africa and the Islamic Middle East. His correspondents were historians, teachers and practitioners in public health, friends, friends of friends, and strangers who had read his books and articles. Aside from the bibliographic and editorial exchanges related to his historical writing, the incoming letters provided most of the impetus for the correspondence, but Sigerist's replies are remarkably numerous and responsive. Although many letters deal with subjects of professional interest in history and public health, this is not, from Sigerist's point of view, primarily a working correspondence; instead, the incoming letters are reports on the writer's interests and activities, to which Sigerist would respond with advice and appreciation and with news and opinion of his own.

The letters that Sigerist wrote from Pura are full of news about himself. He would comment pleasantly on his visitors, recommend books from his own reading, and remark about his garden, his cooking, and his cat. He would also report on his professional concerns: the progress of his History of Medicine, his hopes for foreign travel on the model of his earlier lecture and study tours, and the possibility that he would have to return to teaching.

Sigerist would also write occasionally about his life in Zurich, Leipzig, and Baltimore; but unless he was recalling an experience for someone who had shared it, his reminiscence would usually be no more particular than was necessary to support some generalization. His favorite treatment of his childhood was to contrast his humanistic education in a Swiss gymnasium to the technical training that contemporary students were receiving. He seldom wrote about his years in Leipzig except to declare that he had only good memories of them. His recollections of Baltimore were more specific, but they centered on a few topics: the decline in humanistic values in Johns Hopkins University, his impact on its Institute for the History of Medicine and on American teaching of medical history and public health, and his reasons for leaving the United States. These are valuable reminiscences, but they compensate very little for the gaps in the earlier correspondence.

Sigerist's interpretations of world history and politics are as important in this late correspondence as his descriptions and interpretations of his own experience. These were among his favorite historical and political subjects: United States foreign policy and its domestic manifestations, the perception of that policy in Western Europe and the Soviet Union, the persistence of liberal attitudes in Britain, the appeal of communism in France and Italy, the problems and dangers of German recovery, the compatibility of conservative and cooperative institutions in his district in Switzerland, the pace of reconstruction in Eastern Europe, the renaissance of India, the development of China, and the political corollaries of racial discrimination in the Union of South Africa. Sigerist also commented occasionally on other political subjects, and he frequently linked his observations with remarks about the "iron logic" of historical development. The hundreds of passages on these topics often repeat one another in content and even phrasing, but there are many particular statements that enrich or qualify the recurring generalizations. Long expositions are very rare; if Sigerist wanted to support his opinion, he would not argue the matter but merely cite his reading, his correspondence, or the comments of his visitors. There was little occasion for argument because he expressed these views mainly in letters to people who were likely to share them.

Public health is an important but secondary theme in Sigerist's letters from Pura. By this time he was no longer very active in the field, and most of his comments are in response to incoming letters. These remarks are less integrated than his observations about world political development, but most fall under one of these headings: a preference for any health program over none, advocacy of training in medical history and public health for all physicians, and criticism of the politics of private practitioners.

Sigerist corresponded with historians of medicine from dozens of nations around the world. His most frequent correspondents were Americans and West Europeans, most of whom were former students or colleagues or had come to know him through professional associations. This group includes Erwin H. Ackerknecht, Arturo Castiglioni, John F. Fulton, Loren McKinney, Bernhard Milt, George Rosen, Richard Shryock, Charles Singer, Lloyd Stevenson, Owsei Temkin, and Ilza Veith. The letters from these scholars are full of news about their personal activities and about developments in the profession, especially in relation to the American Association for the History of Medicine and the International Society for the History of Medicine. Other historical correspondents, including some from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and India, were less well acquainted with Sigerist but recognized his leadership of their profession and extended courtesies or sought and received bibliographic advice. In this period as in his early years, Sigerist rarely corresponded with historians about broad problems of interpretation; he might offer his views on world historical development, but the treatment would be the same as in letters to friends in other professions.

Sigerist's correspondence with American teachers and practitioners in public health is among the most valuable segments of the papers. The letters of Leslie A. Falk, Milton I. Roemer, and George Rosen describe their experiences in the United States Public Health Service, the United Mine Workers Welfare and Retirement Fund, the Saskatchewan Health Department, the World Health Organization, the New York City Department of Health, the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, and other important institutions. There is also much professional news in the letters of Leona Baumgartner, Esther Lucile Brown, John Adams Kingsbury, Edwards A. Park, S.M. Rabson, Cecil G. Sheps, and many others. But this part of the correspondence is even more concerned with politics than with public health. The incoming letters contain many long and impassioned descriptions of the political atmosphere in the United States, to which Sigerist responded more fully and more astringently than in his letters to most other correspondents. Here is a relatively unfamiliar example of the impact of the Cold War on the American left.

Sigerist also corresponded with many public health authorities in the smaller nations of Eastern Europe, but these letters are less substantive than his exchanges with his former students and colleagues in the United States. The incoming letters generalize about recent developments in public health, and Sigerist's equally bland replies are less revealing than his comments about Eastern Europe in letters to friends in the West. The most important of these correspondents was Andrija Å tampar of Yugoslavia, but Sigerist probably learned more from his visits than from his letters.

Sigerist was an important figure in Eastern Europe mainly because of his Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union, but in this period he had no professional ties with Russia. His principal correspondents were Vladimir Kazakévich and Richard Koch, both of whom wrote less as physicians than as old friends who had emigrated from the West. Sigerist's inability to keep informed about Soviet medical developments is manifest in his letters to VOKS, and there are discussions of the problem in his correspondence with the staff of the American-Soviet Medical Society and with American medical researchers who hoped that he could get information about Russian innovations in their fields. Lacking fresh information about Soviet public health, Sigerist hardly mentioned the subject in his letters; his many comments about Russia are concerned, rather, with the causes and consequences of the Cold War.

The third focus of Sigerist's interest in public health was Asia. The letters he received from India document bureaucratic obstacles to improving public health, and his replies emphasize his interest in traditional Indian medicine. He also received a few letters from China, but they contain little information about public health except the news that his book on Soviet medicine was being distributed in many thousand copies. Developments in Asia were central to Sigerist's view of world political evolution, but his knowledge of what was going on there came almost entirely from Western publications.

Series II, PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES, contains correspondence and miscellaneous papers that document six categories of activity with varying degrees of thoroughness. Board of Economic Warfare consists of official papers related to Sigerist's work as a consultant to the United States government during World War II. The most valuable item is a transcript of his interrogation as an alleged Communist. Editing contains a few papers related to Monumenta Medica and the festschrift for Karl Sudhoff. Lecture Tours and Organizations consist of routine correspondence, printed matter, and miscellaneous papers related to Sigerist's travels in the United States and South Africa and his membership in scholarly societies. Research and Writing consists mainly of notebooks, including a record of Sigerist's observations in the Soviet Union in 1938, and typescripts of published writings. Universities contains letters and miscellaneous papers, the most important of which are Sigerist's pleas to the Saxony Ministry of Education for more support for the Institute at Leipzig.

Series III, BIOGRAPHICAL DATA AND MEMORABILIA, consists of photographs, printed matter, and miscellaneous papers spanning all of Sigerist's adult life. Most of the photographs are of him or of scenes at the Institute for the History of Medicine in Baltimore. The early years in Switzerland are represented mainly by documents from his schooling and military service. The principal mementos of the later years are a curriculum vitae and bibliography prepared by friends to support his nomination for the Lenin Peace Prize and a mimeographed excerpt of Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union that circulated underground in wartime Belgium with the title, "Dr. Antoine: A propos d'un cas d'ulcus duodénal." There are also many theater and concert programs and travel brochures from the early 1930s and an annotated address file arranged by city and country.

The Henry E. Sigerist Papers were given to Yale University Library by Nora Sigerist Beeson in 1960. Arranging and cataloguing began in 1977 with a generous donation from Mrs. Beeson. The papers are part of the library's Contemporary Medical Care and Health Policy Collection.


  • 1891-1991


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright for unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by Henry Ernest Sigerist has been transferred to Yale University. These materials may be used for non-commercial purposes without seeking permission from Yale University as the copyright holder. For other uses of these materials, please contact

Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Nora Sigerist Beeson, 1960, 1986, and 1996; Marcel Bickel, 1996. Transferred from the Medical Historical Library, 1991.


Arranged in three series and five additions: I. Correspondence, 1897-1970. II. Professional Activities, 1920-1978. III. Biographical Data and Memorabilia, 1910-1974.


35.25 Linear Feet (81 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of correspondence, notes, writings, lectures, photographs, and miscellanea documenting the personal life and professional career of Henry E. Sigerist. His student and teaching activities, writings on the history of medicine, concern for public health policies in the United States and Asia, cold war political interests, and other professional and personal concerns are documented in the papers. Sigerist corresponded with several prominent figures in the field of medicine. These papers form part of the Contemporary Medical Care and Health Policy Collection.

Biographical / Historical

Henry E. Sigerist was born in Paris, France in 1891. He studied in Europe, served in the Swiss Army Corps, and received his M.D. from the University of Zurich in 1917. He was lecturer and professor of history of medicine at Zurich (1921-1924) and the University of Leipzig (1925-1932). He then served as professor and director of the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University (1932-1947), before becoming a research associate at Yale University (1947-1957). Sigerist published many articles and books, edited medical publications, and participated in several professional organizations until his death on March 17, 1957. These are some principal events in his personal and professional life:

was born in Paris to Ernst Heinrich Sigerist (1860-1901) and Emma (Wiskemann) Sigerist (1865-1954)
was graduated from the Literargymnasium in Zurich
studied oriental philology in the Universities of London and Zurich
served in the Swiss Army Medical Corps
married Emmy M. Escher
received the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Zurich
was appointed privatdozent of the history of medicine in the University of Zurich
was appointed professor of the history of medicine in the University of Zurich
publication of Essays on the History of Medicine, Presented to Karl Sudhoff, co-edited by Charles Singer
publication of four volumes of Monumenta Medica
was appointed professor of the history of medicine and director of the Institute of the History of Medicine in the University of Leipzig
publication of Antike Heilkunde
lectured and traveled in the United States
was appointed professor and director of the Institute of the History of Medicine in Johns Hopkins University
publication of German editions of The Great Doctors, Man and Medicine, and American Medicine
founded and edited the Bulletin of the History of Medicine
traveled three times to the Soviet Union
became president of the American Association for the History of Medicine
publication of Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union
became vice president of the International Society of the History of Medicine
became president of the History of Science Society
lectured in South Africa
publication of Medicine and Human Welfare
served as acting librarian of the William H. Welch Medical Library
became editor of the American Review of Soviet Medicine
served as consultant to the Board of Economic Warfare
chaired the Saskatchewan Health Services Survey Commission advised the Health Survey and Development Committee of the Government of India
publication of The University at the Crossroads
was appointed research associate in Yale University went to live in Casa Serena, Pura, Ticino, Switzerland
publication of Letters of Jean de Carro
1950, 1952
lectured in Great Britain
publication of the first volume of A History of Medicine
suffered a cerebral embolism
died (March 17)
Guide to the Henry Ernest Sigerist Papers
Under Revision
compiled by the staff of Manuscripts and Archives
August 1998
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

Yale University Library
P.O. Box 208240
New Haven CT 06520-8240 US
(203) 432-1735
(203) 432-7441 (Fax)


Sterling Memorial Library
Room 147
120 High Street
New Haven, CT 06511

Opening Hours